It's Looking Like Samsung's Return to Wear OS Is Inevitable

Illustration for article titled It's Looking Like Samsung's Return to Wear OS Is Inevitable
Photo: Victoria Song/Gizmodo

Rumors that Samsung might be ditching its proprietary smartwatch operating system for Google’s neglected Wear OS platform aren’t new. However, it’s looking increasingly likely that Tizen OS is not long for this world.

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Earlier this week, Android Police found hidden code in the Galaxy Wearable app that referenced a new pair of Samsung earbuds dubbed the Galaxy Buds 2. Tech writer Max Weinbach, who spotted the reference, then tweeted that the code also revealed some interesting tidbits about the forthcoming Galaxy watches.

Specifically, the code references a new plugin dubbed “water,” which Weinbach posits is a “Samsung wearable/Wear OS compatibility layer.” It also seems to reference a new chipset called “merlot” for two watches codenamed “wise” and “fresh.” But the real kicker is that Weinbach found a reference that explicitly says “newos.”

It’s likely that the two watches refer to the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 and the Samsung Galaxy Active 4. (No, you didn’t miss the Galaxy Watch Active 3, Samsung just sometimes decides to skip numbers. There was no Galaxy Watch 2, for example.) However, the “merlot” chipset is notable. The past two iterations of Samsung Galaxy watches have relied on the same Exynos chip. That’s not a bad thing! The watches are quite snappy compared to Wear OS watches powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Wear 2100 and 3100 platforms. However, a new SoC might signal that we could be seeing some advanced features.

If “water” is truly a compatibility layer, it’s also possible that Samsung is taking a similar approach to Wear OS as the Oppo Watch did. While the Oppo Watch is technically a Wear OS watch, it runs a fork of the operating system that takes the best of Oppo’s ColorOS and mashes it with the parts of Wear OS that people actually like. Also unlike most Wear OS watches, the Oppo Watch uses a non-Qualcomm co-processor paired with the Snapdragon Wear 3100. The result is frankly one of the best Wear OS watches out there.

This could mean that Samsung’s figured out a way to “customize” Wear OS in a way that’s beneficial for it and Google. As in, Samsung could opt for its own more powerful processor that enables all the strides it made in the past few years with regard to advanced health features—like FDA-cleared ECG, SpO2 sensors, etc.—that are noticeably absent from Wear OS watches. It could also completely dominate the Android smartwatch market by giving people the choice between Bixby/Google Assistant and Samsung Pay/Google Pay—not to mention offer a more robust third-party app store.

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When this rumor was first making the rounds, it seemed like a Very Bad Idea for Samsung. This latest round of leaks makes a potential switch to Wear OS seem less painful, but the main reason why this might not work still isn’t resolved. Put simply, Google has yet to show any sign that Wear OS is a priority. In the past year, Google has prioritized creating smartwatch apps for Apple first, rolled out underwhelming updates, and that’s about it. Most embarrassingly, the “hey Google” command on Wear OS has been broken for months. In some cases, Tizen-based apps are also better than their Wear OS counterparts. Spotify is the best example of this. On Tizen, Spotify allows offline playlists. On Wear OS, it’s a glorified remote.

It could be a classic chicken-and-egg scenario. Perhaps Google doesn’t see the point in investing in Wear OS until it has a “flagship” worthy of it. But of course, there can’t be a great flagship Wear OS watch until Google invests in the platform. Unless, you know, Samsung were to throw Google a bone—and that’s what these rumors seem to be hinting at.

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We’ll have to wait and see. Samsung tends to launch its new wearables in August, but some leakers have suggested we could see it much earlier this year. In any case, Samsung’s probably already made its choice. At this point, all we can hope for is that Android users not get screwed over and for Samsung to please, please, please keep the rotating bezel.

Consumer tech reporter by day, danger noodle by night. No, I'm not the K-Pop star.

DISCUSSION

brianm85
Brian

How’s this for a hot take on Wear OS. Ad company doesn’t want to invest devices they can’t sell ads on.